Sometimes I feel like I get upset about the wrong things. Let me explain, there’s this meme going around that talks about a new pastor’s first sermon to his shiny megachurch. The story goes that the pastor pretended to be a homeless man and everyone ignored him, even when he begged for money. He was asked to stand in the back of the church, and when he was finally introduced everyone was horrified, until he preached a really scathing sermon which culminated in his asking the congregation if they were ever going to choose to be disciples.
It seems like most of my Christian friends have been forwarding this meme around. A lot of people say things like, “wow,” or “so humbling!”
My first reaction to it was to be sick to my stomach. Then, I was angry. Then, I was angry-sad. Then, I had a headache.
There’s a part of me that thinks we all need reminders that Jesus told us that we would be judged by how we treat “the least of these.” So why don’t I like that meme?
Okay, let’s go through it step by step:
- It isn’t true. This is a story that someone made up, probably to try to put some of the things that Jesus said into a more modern day context, making the church analogous to the pharisees. I’ve made that analogy myself, so why does it bother me so much in this context? While I am a little bothered by the meme’s assertion that only a handful of people out of 10,000 would acknowledge the pastor’s presence, I’m more bothered by the pastor himself. Here we have a well-to-do man with his suit and tie concealed under homeless man’s clothes. He isn’t really a man of the street that lives off charity, but he pretends to be one. When Christ said, “What you do to the least of these you do to me” he wasn’t saying it from a comfortable position as a pastor of a megachurch whose tailored suit was hidden under beggar’s clothes- he was saying it as a beggar. He lived off of the charity and hospitality of others, so when he said, “do it as you would to me” that could be taken quite literally. If you would welcome Jesus into your home, welcome the beggars in. If you had food to share with Jesus you had food to share with the lame. If you would offer Jesus a cup of water, offer it to the sick. Every offering as such Jesus would accept as an offering to his own person- not because Jesus didn’t need the offerings, but because he did. These days, we as Christians are far distanced from the reality which Jesus had to live. I don’t know if we really understand the fact that Jesus didn’t have a pension plan, couldn’t file unemployment, and couldn’t ply his trade while traveling and teaching. He didn’t have a trust fun he was living off of, he lived off of the goodwill of others. When we feed the hungry and care for the sick and give room to the homeless, we are remembering that God himself once shared their lot. This meme? It doesn’t seem like a humble reminder of that reality, it feels like the opposite. It treats the reality of Christ’s life that he lived for us as a charade, to be put on and then taken off at the most humiliating moment.
- It’s a “GOTCHA” moment, not a humble reminder. Jesus doesn’t deal in shame, so why should we praise those who do? This isn’t the case of a pastor humbly searching for truth in the guise of a homeless man, like this one, this is a pastor knowingly setting a trap to catch his congregation in. The whole story hinges off of the judgment that Christians, as a whole, aren’t choosing to be disciples. That churches do ignore people who aren’t dressed right. That parishioners with cash in their pockets for the offering basket would give no change to a hungry, needy man sharing their pews. The pastor, prior to ever preaching a sermon to his new congregation, has already decided they aren’t following Christ and need a scolding. And rather than, say, inviting actual homeless people in to be cared for, he pretends to be one just to hammer a point home. No, no thank you. Jesus didn’t contrive situations to shame his followers. He lived his life as a genuine example. Those teachable moments the Bible is full of? They happened as a natural consequence of how Christ lived. The only time he set up “traps” for anyone was in response to the traps that had been set up for him. Jesus didn’t trade in shaming his followers, so neither should we.
- Who made it up? What was their motive? We don’t know. Rather than putting their own name and face to the tale, someone made up a story just to prove their point. I’m all for parables, Jesus himself was known for them, but this doesn’t feel like that. This is a lie parading as the truth. The internet, yes, is full of such things. Pictures of babies born with deformities meant to shame you if you don’t share them. Mangled fetuses. Abused dogs and cats for whom some unnamed stranger will donate a dollar per “like.” To put it plainly, bullshit. But this bullshit I’ll take personally, because this bullshit is about the church. This bullshit about the church hinges off of the fact that no one will question the idea that a congregation of ten thousand are ready and willing to reject a homeless man.
So what does that tell us about the person who wrote the story, and what does it say about those who share it?
Judgment, and shame. We’ve all judged the church as having fallen on it’s sword, and we all believe that it needs to be shamed.
I spent one of the most fulfilling years of my life working as the site supervisor for a homeless shelter. That shelter operated based off of the goodwill and cooperation of a couple of handfuls of churches surrounding a relatively small, but active, community. Volunteers stayed with our guests overnight to make sure their needs were met. Volunteers prepared and delivered hot meals for them twice a day. Volunteers cleaned up after them. Volunteers often picked them up and drove them to church on Sunday mornings. Volunteers talked to them. Volunteers let them know about job openings in the community, sometimes offered them small jobs, brought gently used clothing to hand out, made Easter and Christmas baskets, and donated thousands of dollars every night to pay the staff who served them.
None of those churches would have ignored a homeless person on a Sunday morning. Quite the opposite. Their attention and interest brings tears to my eyes every time I think about it to this day.
Let’s be evenhanded. If we all agree that most churches don’t give a crap about the people who walk in their doors, what does that say about us? Our faith? Or, even more important, what does it say about our belief in God?
Essentially, what that meme says is not that we need to be reminded that Jesus asks us to care for the “least of these”; what it says is that faith is pointless. That no one is getting anywhere. That two thousand years after Christ’s death, the church is useless. That Christians are, as a whole, hypocrites. (With the exception of a few self-righteous pricks waiting around for “gotcha” moments to humiliate us all and remind us how little we’ve grown.) The meme doesn’t remind us of Christ’s love, it reminds us of our own selfishness. What it offers isn’t hope but condemnation.
I have seen a pastor preaching shirtless in the streets because he gave the shirt off his back (literally) to a street kid. I’ve seen a poor woman wander into a church in the middle of a service and seen everything stop while the congregation found out what she needed and got her help- including people running to the store to buy her baby diapers and formulas, and her having so many lunch invitations she had to choose who to turn down.
That’s my faith.
I’ve seen people give away the dinner they just cooked for their family and have toast for dinner instead because they heard that someone down the street lost their job and couldn’t get groceries.
That’s my faith.
I’ve seen families take in kids whose parents were arrested so that those kids wouldn’t have to go into foster care.
That’s my faith.
I’ve seen so many people show up at the hospital to pray for a sick relative that some of them never even got in the room.
That’s my faith.
That’s my church. And I’m not just speaking about one church, but many. All of the truly genuine people whose example brought me back to the feet of God after I thought I’d left him forever. I may speak about the judgment of the church making me question my faith in God, but never let it be forgotten that it was the genuine love of the church that brought me back to him. This is a sword that cuts both ways and cannot be ignored. Yes, some Christians are assholes. But there are still many who truly seek to follow Christ and emulate his love, and the only cure for the one is the praise of the other.
If we want people to stop being assholes, we shouldn’t be assholes towards them. We should seek to be as loving, open, genuine, and kind as they are not.
The solution for a church that ignores the homeless isn’t a heaping helping of condemnation- it’s a loving example of the proper way.
Do I sometimes have harsh things to say to other Christians? Yes. I believe some of the attitudes I’ve seen towards the poor, towards single mothers, towards gay people, are incredibly destructive. But I speak against it not because I believe the majority of Christians are selfish assholes but because I believe the opposite. I believe that if most Christians realized the impact their attitudes had on others, they would willingly and quickly change. And guess what? In the six years I have helmed this blog that is what I’ve seen, time and time again. I have so many stories of hope and change and trust and love that I could spend the rest of my life writing about them, and I’m only just getting started.
So, yeah, I had an allergic reaction to this particular meme.
That’s not my faith.
You, dear reader, you are my faith. And you deserve better than to be shamed by a lie.
*This cannot be overstated. If you want a church to take interest in the homeless, the best way is to bring the actual homeless into the church and take care of them. People respond to love with love, and when they see you loving others their natural response is to do the same. This is far more effective than shame could ever be. Give the church an example to be like Christ, and if the church is full of Christians, it’ll happen.